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Literature / Sten

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The Sten series is a science fiction saga written by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch. The eponymous protagonist is an orphan from a hellish industrial space station, who escapes prison and indentured servitude to join the Emperor's armed forces (well, he was sort of pressed into the service, but it beat the hell out of industrial slavery).

His native talent and the skills he acquired not dying on the hell-world Vulcan come in handy in the military, and he goes on to become a covert operative in the enigmatic Mercury Corps, the Emperor's special forces.

Throughout the course of the series he adds to his rank, consequence and badassery. He has as much success with women as one would expect of a covert operative, only with more monogamy than your average James Bond.

Because almost every single character in the series is a member of a military, expect to see a lot of Combat Tropes, Military and Warfare Tropes, Espionage Tropes, and badass tropes.

Sten now has a Character Sheet. Please to add examples to it.

This series contains examples of:

  • 0% Approval Rating: Many of the tyrants that Sten has to topple are close to this, and the point of his Mantis team's guerilla actions and psychological warfare is to push the people to brink.
  • Ace Pilot: "drakh-hot" Hannelore La Ciotat.
  • Acrofatic: Ida, one of Sten's only surviving buddies from his original Mantis team, is a battle-hardened commando and also quite overweight.
  • Action Girl: Bet, Cind, and pretty much every female character in the series.
  • Agent Provocateur: Mercury Corps uses this as a matter of course. Sten incites rebellion on Vulcan by fulfilling the Mig folk story of "one of their own" who will get out, return, and lead them to freedom. Especially effective because he is, and does.
  • Air-Vent Passageway: Played straight, but still rather well done.
  • Ambadassador: In the second-to-last book, Vortex, Sten has become this. His assignment is to stabilize a world full of ethnicities and races that absolutely despise one another, and even though he's pretty deft at managing problems through diplomacy, he's still as much of a lethal badass as before, as some would-be rioters and assassins find out.
  • Anyone Can Die: Oh God yes. The average chance any named character has of surviving the book/s they appear in (unless they're Sten, Alex, and a scant handful of other exceptions) is something like less than 10%.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: AM2, Antimatter-2, is used in everything from bullets to spaceships. It's never explained how it differs from "everyday" antimatter.
    • This holds true until the final book, Empire's End, where the exigencies of the story require more detail on what AM2 is and where it comes from; this detail is supplied semi-satisfactorily in a sort of retcon of AM2 to be matter from another universe with unique properties intrinsic to it that happen to merely resemble antimatter in terms of reaction with most other matter. The earlier books in the series (that is: all of them) don't really have a good explanation for this.
    • Imperium X, a rare mineral that's necessary to shield AM2.
    • Whatever material Sten's Absurdly Sharp Blade is made of, we never see it mass-produced, it's grown from "living" metals. (See Court of a Thousand Suns.)
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Just about all of them, unless you count Kilgour. As it turns out, that's the series' point.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking
    • The Eternal Emperor is not someone you want to mess with hand to hand. He hasn't survived two thousand years of assassination attempts, only three of them successful, by being a wimp.
    • Baron Thoresen is also a master of personal combat.
    • And as the biggest Badass of the series, Sten eventually deposes the Emperor.
  • Author Tract: At least, the authors, in an afterward to the series, say it's intended to deconstruct the idea of a benevolent despot such as in the works of A.E. van Vogt.
  • Awesome, but Impractical
    • The first book has a short sequence during Sten's Boot Camp which shows off an entire series of Powered Armor which grow larger until they are Humongous Mecha near the middle, then become smaller and more compact near the end. It's explained that Humongous Mecha are awesome, capable of sustaining the pilot's life for weeks and laying waste to small cities, but have virtually no agility. The drill instructor relates a story of how a planet of spear-wielding natives once destroyed a battalion of the mecha by laying pitfall traps everywhere, hence why more modern mechs are much smaller and more maneuverable.
    • It's telling that in the majority of the conflicts throughout the rest of the series, we don't see any of the power suits in action either, other than simple high-tech combat harnesses or space-suits. Most vehicles are more conventional tanks, though we do also get flying cars.
  • Bad Ass Crew: The Mantis team.
  • Bar Brawl: the Eternal Emperor likes to get into these every now and then.
  • Battle Couple: Sten and whoever he's dating, because he pretty much only hooks up with Action Girls. Also subverted when Action Girl Haines winds up married to a decidedly not action oriented archeologist.
  • Battle Cry: "Ayo Gurkhali!" (Which is the Gurkhas' real battle cry.) In English, the full version of this Battle Cry means "Blood for Kali, the Ghurkhas are coming!"
  • Beware the Nice Ones: The below quote from Marr and Senn, the adorable Milchen cooks.
    Marr: Oh, bugger them.
    Marr: The one thing we know, dear, is kitchens. And if these brutes invade my kitchen, they are going to be very sorry.note 
  • The Big Guy: Alex Kilgour. Doubles as a Lancer, too. He's the only member of Sten's Mantis team who becomes such a regular that he's in every book.
  • Breakout Character: Alex Kilgour wasn't particularly more important than any other member of Sten's group, starting out, but he wound up in every book since the first because apparently the writers took a shine to him.
    • He provided a more comic foil to Sten's more cynical sense of humor. Without Kilgour, there would have been no series, as the authors found the original character of Sten to be highly unlikeable. (See the Alex Kilgour Jokebook.)
  • The Caligula: Many of the evil tyrants we see are depraved in some way or like to indulge in one or more vices. One character directly references Caligula in two ways; first he quotes "If only all my subjects had but one throat so I could slit it" and secondly, he points out the man's sexual escapades before indulging in some of his own.
  • Came Back Wrong: The Eternal Emperor, who very quickly goes from a kindly ruler to a despot.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Placed on the wall near the beginning of the first book, unused till the very end of the series — Baron Thoresen's Bravo Project just might be the solution to cheap creation of Anti-Matter Two after all.
  • Cold Equation: The Emperor (long before he was Emperor, just an engineer) and the survivors of his crew on a starship limping back to earth, with limited power, air, and food, start offing each other one at a time as they determine who's the least-useful. Those who are killed are put into the recycler and turned into edible "soup."
  • Combat Pragmatist:
    • If Vulcan hadn't already beaten it out of him, Mantis training would have taught Sten that combat has no rules.
    • The Emperor, too. He finds that a crowbar is a far more effective melee weapon than a sword.
  • Conveniently an Orphan: Well, turned out not to be so convenient for the Baron.
  • Cooked to Death: The Emperor's personal chefs—the fluffy, snarky, alien, and very gay Milchen cooks—defend Sten by turning a sonic oven on one of the Praetorians and roasting him alive.
  • Cultured Warrior: Kilgour, who turns out to be something of an aristocrat himself.
  • Covers Always Lie:
    • Let's see...we have a (blonde!) Sten who looks like he's in his 60's sharing a cover with Chewbacca and an Apollo rocket.
    • One cover for "Revenge of the Damned," a big "The Great Escape" reference, is accurate to the first moments of the book, where Sten and his buddy Alex Kilgour are cutting through a fence with his Absurdly Sharp Blade...except the blade on the cover glows like a tiny lightsaber. One gets the feeling the artist didn't read much of the book, although it might be intended to represent the crystal of the blade catching the light.
  • Death World: Not including worlds that are just controlled by evil dictators who make life for their subjects a living hell, there are several. One's a planet full of valuable fast-growing crystals but is similar to Io or Venus, because it's got a horribly toxic atmosphere and is full of exploding volcanoes. One's a Prison Planet that is intentionally filled with dangerous things; the convicts are expected to do all sorts of high-risk jobs to obtain valuable exotics, such as dangerous mines for jewels, dangerous tidewaters full of Starfish Aliens for valuable mollusks, and killer tumbleweeds that spray acid when anybody stops them. The Bhor homeworld used to be an icy Death World but they deliberately induced global warming to make it more hospitable.
  • Dystopia: Most of the worlds that Sten is assigned to are political (or literal) hell-holes that need to be gutted and reformed. As the series goes on towards its conclusion, the Empire itself becomes less and less a nice place to live, hence the last book in the series being "Empire's End."
    • Dystopia Is Hard: Part of what makes Sten's recurring "topple this dictatorship" missions possible is that they're all so fundamentally flawed that all he needs to do is to expose those weaknesses and exploit them for all they're worth until something snaps. This eventually occurs to the Empire itself; the harder its masters clamp down on personal freedoms, the harder it becomes for anything to actually be run well.
  • The Empire: A relatively benevolent one, for a while. It doesn't last; Rykor points out that most empires do tend to harden and then crumble over time.
  • Evil All Along: The Emperor himself, at least as Rykor puts it. Coming back wrong just made his psychosis bubble to the surface; the guy had been quietly eliminating absolutely everyone in the past twenty centuries who would be a threat to his power, and did such a good job of it he seems like a nice guy too.
  • Executive Meddling: Several in-universe examples. There is, of course, the Privy Council, a junta of CEOs who decide killing the Emperor and taking over after the war is a good idea (it wasn't, not for them or anyone else). After he comes back and makes Sten an Ambadassador, the Emperor hamstrings Sten's efforts to stabilize a world of hostile ethnicities by forcing him to support a myopic, self-important racist as the leader of said world.
  • Fair Cop: Detective Lisa Haines
  • Feghoot: A couple of Kilgour's abominable jokes are just one long excuse for a pun.
  • Food Porn: Author Appeal probably had something to do with this; Allan Cole has been a professional chef.
    • The Eternal Emperor loves his barbecue, and that's only the start.
    • Readers are given almost the entire recipe for Angelo Stew.
    • The writers dedicate three pages to Sten making a sandwich.
  • Four-Star Badass: Mahoney, who used to be a Colonel Badass and protested his promotion to Fleet Marshall.
  • Friendly Sniper: Cind is a very nice gal. Young, pretty, lethal within a five mile radius...
  • Gargle Blaster: Stregg, an alien beverage quaffed by gigantic wookie-like Space Vikings. The beverage itself is named after the "streggan," a vicious monster that these Space Viking wookies once hunted as a rite of manhood; in other words, this is the manliest, toughest drink in the universe. Sten takes a liking to the stuff after the second book, and briefly gets the Emperor hooked on the stuff too.
    • Allan Cole shared a more contemporary recipe for stregg in the Sten Cookbook.
  • Gender Is No Object: Men and women bunk together in basic training for the Imperial Guard. The usual objection to this, fraternization, isn't an issue, either because everyone gets some kind of libido suppressant in their food, or, as Sten suspects, everyone is just too goddamned tired to think about hanky-panky.
  • Genius Bonus - Many references to history and current events at time of authorship, some of which are really only noticeable if you have military experience. Character names and tactical references are just two examples - authors have Shown Their Work!
  • Genius Bruiser: Alex Kilgour
  • Ghost Ship: Sh'aarl't discovers one.
  • Gold Fever: A variation of it occurs in the Emperor's backstory. He was a simple space engineer at the time on a ship that accidentally discovered the portal to an alternate universe filled with antimatter—a nearly limitless supply of energy that would completely transform society upon its discovery, and make anyone who had a monopoly on it insanely rich. This would be enough to make people think greedy thoughts on its own. The ship becomes badly damaged, however, and while it's limping back to Earth it becomes clear that the fewer survivors there are the more air and food there will be for the rest...
  • Good-Guy Bar: The Western Eating Parlor Number 2
  • Great Escape: The first part of Revenge of the Damned is one giant Shout-Out to The Great Escape. Then Sten has to break back in and it becomes a more serious version of Hogan's Heroes, if you can imagine that.
  • Heavy Worlder: Kilgour. So it justifies a lot of improbable moves like:
  • Hideous Hangover Cure: Angelo stew. Actually sounds pretty tasty, but spicy.
    Sten swallowed. The Angelo stew savored his tongue, and then gobbled down his throat to his stomach. A small nuclear flame bloomed, and his eyes teared and his nose wept and his ears turned bright red. The Stregg in his bloodstream fled before a horde of hot-pepper molecules.
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: The AM2 universe is completely devoid of life, and anyone who enters it can feel, somehow, that they are utterly alone.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: The titular character, despite being the universe's premier Badass Normal, retires to just be a normal person. It sticks until the Powers That Be try to assassinate/kidnap him.
  • Improvised Weapon: Paraphrased from Empire's End: "Given the chance, he would turn anything given to him into a weapon. A piece of paper would do just fine. A glass would be even better."
  • Inappropriately Close Comrades: During Guards basic training, it's thought by some that there might be some sort of libido suppressant added to everyone's food to make this a non-issue, although Sten's view is that simple tiredness would have the same effect.
  • Informed Attribute: Sten's aformentioned Combat Pragmatism. He's never shown committing violence toward any female, despite the universal gender-equity of his society. The vast majority of the fighting females happen to be on his side in most cases; if they aren't, (like an assassin, or Lady Atago) it's usually someone else who does the job for him.
  • Intelligent Gerbil
    • The Bogazi and Suzdal—inhabitants of the Altic Cluster—resemble chickens and dogs, respectively. This is how they are described to Sten, by a creature that looks like a carnivorous antelope.
    • Sh'aarl't looks like a giant fuzzy spider.
  • I Want My Jetpack: Deconstructed. Personal propulsion units do exist, but when stripped down to the bare essentials (a flying belt, basically), an entire squad of soldiers are blown off the field by the wind. Played straight with the flying cars, however.
  • Kukris Are Kool: Nepalese isn't the only thing Sten picked up during his time as the Gurkha's commander.
  • Lady of War: Lady Atago.
  • Last Girl Wins: Not too surprising, considering the major love of his life mid-series got married. Enter Cind in the last three novels.
  • Martial Arts and Crafts: Acrobats, knife jugglers, sharpshooters and other sideshow performers in one of the Emperor's games are actually Mantis operatives, showing off for the only one who knows who they really are: their Emperor.
  • Meaningful Name: The Emperor often goes incognito as "Raschid," the name of a wily monarch who would go around his own peasants in disguise to learn how to curry favor from them. He chose this name deliberately; he'd make note of people who showed signs of recognizing its meaning — these were people he felt it'd be worth his while to cultivate.
  • Mind Probe: One of the more unpleasant devices Rykor (and others liker her) can use is a machine that scans every memory you've ever had. It's unfortunately of limited use on those who have been driven insane, however, so when they use it on a guy who's gone catatonic from nearly being eaten by a Starfish Alien, they mostly get jumbles with only a few clue threads.
  • No Peripheral Vision: Lampshaded by Kilgour musing that he's safe because nobody in a military formation will every look anywhere but straight ahead for fear of an arse-chewing.
  • Obviously Evil: The Emperor's "Privy Council," composed of the wealthiest businesspeople in his empire, and every one of them a transparent Corrupt Corporate Executive. Their leader, Sullamora, even chose a couple because of their "raw, open greed." Apparently they're so rich they can screw the rules, because they actually take over in the Emperor's absence. You can't really run a political empire quite the same way you run a financial empire, though, so things get worse.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Sten may be a Combat Pragmatist, but it seems he Wouldn't Hit a Girl unless forced. There's one instance where he nearly kills a female guard but instead knocks her out, not out of chivalry, but because he doesn't have time to hide a body.
  • Offscreen Breakup: Sten and his childhood girlfriend Bet have already broken up by the beginning of the second book. This does not stop them from occasionally having sex. They agreed to be "just friends," but Bet was feeling "really friendly."
  • One Nation Under Copyright: Vulcan.
  • Only One Name: Sten actually has a given name, "Karl," but it's lost and forgotten quickly when he grows up on Vulcan and all military records from his enlistment on have him listed as "Sten, NI". For the record, he still knows his name, but never bothers to give it to anyone.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: The first sign that something is wrong with the Emperor is when he stops drinking Stregg.
  • Pardon My Klingon: clot, drakh.
    • This is mostly the result of language changing slowly over two thousand years; in a flashback to the Eternal Emperor's early days people use more conventional curse words.
    • Cind is fond of using Bhor oaths, like "By my mother's beard!" (the Bhor are really hairy) because she spent so much time in their military.
  • Phlebotinum Dependence: The Emperor deliberately sets up the entire galaxy for this. Hyperdrives are too energy-inefficient to run on non-antimatter fuel for too long, among other things, and he is the only one who controls when and where the robot freighters containing Antimatter-Two are deployed. Upon his death, they cease to function and the supply chain for the entire galaxy collapses; this is so that when he comes back to life, he can easily topple whoever killed him.
  • Planet of Hats: Mostly averted, but consider: Kilgour comes from a planet called Edinburgh. In other words, somewhere in the galaxy is an entire world of people like him.
  • Praetorian Guard: There is literally an Imperial Praetorian Guard unit; these guys are really more of the "shine your boots and look good" honor guard rather than the elite Gurkhas the Emperor employs to actually guard himself. Unsurprisingly, most of them turn out to be untrustworthy when a coup is attempted.
  • Polyamory: Kilgour's solution to his love triangle? OT3! Well, actually the girls found the solution. Kilgour wasn't really consulted in the matter.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy
    • The People of the Lake
    • The Bhor
    • The Jannissars
    • The Gurkha
    • Everyone else
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Revenge Of The Damned
  • Recycled In Space: The entire campaign against the Tahn is essentially the Pacific Theater of World War II IN SPACE! The parallels between Tahn fanaticism and Japanese wartime propaganda are clear. Guadacanal, Midway, Truk and the last sortie of the Yamato are all represented. The US Navy's wartime evolution into a highly effective fighting force is duplicated in the Imperial armed forces' same evolution. Even the Tahn's going to war and then their slow strangulation due to their AM2 supply being cut off replicates the Japanese being starved of their oil supplies, which, before FDR's embargo because of the invasion of Indochina, they got mostly from the US.
  • Resurrective Immortality: The Eternal Emperor. He can die, and indeed has been assassinated more than once, but he always returns a few years later to reclaim his throne.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Many instances of terrorist attacks or guerrilla action in the books bear really, really close resemblance to real life events; i.e. the truck bomb in Vortex looked a lot like the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon. See also Write What You Know.
  • Roboteching : There's a rare instance of a sniper rifle able to do this: if a bad guy's behind a corner, you aim near the corner, fiddle the adjustments to put spin on the projectile, and you get a gun that shoots around corners.
  • Rock Beats Laser: As mentioned above, power suits aren't seen often in this series because they're not very maneuverable. In fact, since one of the writers has actual military experience and the other used to work for the CIA, they know all too well that someone clever (if technologically inferior) can win the day.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Many, including the Emperor himself; in fact, the Emperor is so hands-on that he is literally the only living man who knows the secret of where to get Antimatter-Two and has the rest of the galaxy in his pocket because of the immense wealth and power this brings him. He also loves a good beer and barfight. Many other royals or other political leaders of other nations have actual combat ability or military backgrounds, and, friend or foe, they are all nasty people.
    • Royals in the Sten books tend to skew either towards being hardcore military basses or ineffectual insane armchair generals. Sadly, both types have a strong tendency towards ruining the lives of those they rule over. Sten's career is built around toppling despots, and occasionally he even pits one against the other.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: Getting the numbers right is something of a rarity, especially with space distances. A few standouts - two ships make a suicidally close pass, "three light seconds apart". This is about 750,000 miles, or something like 100 times the diameter of the Earth. On another occasion, a fighter squadron breaks for orbit and stops "one AU out". This is eight light minutes, or about the distance from the Earth to the Sun. It's best to treat distances given as "A lot" or "not a lot" depending on the rest of the sentence.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: In at least one case, Kilgour tells a story on and off that rambles through the entire book.
    • For God's sake, don't ask him about the spotted snakes.
    • Lo Prek, a Tahn soldier, believes that Sten killed his brother and intends to kill him in revenge (Sten didn't do it, but Prek doesn't know that, even though he has no solid reason to believe that Sten did kill his brother). Throughout the book, he manages to pinpoint Sten's location... and gets anticlimactically killed by Alex without even scoring a hit on Sten.
  • Sharpened to a Single Atom: Sten's crystal shiv. Fifteen molecules wide and able to cut through virtually anything. For bonus points, he keeps it inside his forearm in a little space that was surgically implanted and can whip it out any time he wants, so it effectively falls under "Blade Below the Shoulder" too.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Famed diplomat Sr. Ecu sends the equally renowned psychologist Rykor a copy of an ancient Earth manuscript. Rykor says she finds the idea of "psychohistory" fascinating, but found the protagonist "Selden" rather repellent.
    • Sten makes a friend at Flight School: a giant spider named Sh'aarl't. Also at Flight School is a "servant" — actually, a psychologist sizing the trainees up — whose name is W. Grenville Pelham.
    • Sten's friend Ida acted as a stockbroker for him, and her investments made him wealthy enough to own an uninhabited but Earthlike planet, Smallbridge. (Horatio Hornblower became Baron Hornblower of Smallbridge.)
    • Mercury Corps call the "appear unlike who you really are and like no one in particular" camouflage tactic a "Great Lorenzo".
    • Littered with these, from reaganbaker as a political tactic to Air Marshall Billy Bishop's great-great-great... grandson as one of Sten's fellow students.
    • The first half of Revenge Of The Damned is one big shout out to The Great Escape.
  • Smug Snake: Several, but probably the worst offender is Sr. Hakone, an armchair general who believed that the Empire was a little too decadent and needed a good, long war with another government to get things going again. Sten obligingly fries Hakone with an electrical cable right in the middle of another of his self-important speeches.
  • Space Navy: therefore...
  • Space Marine
  • Starfish Aliens:
    • Literally in one case. The creature is capable of standing up on two of its arms, runs through waist-deep water as fast as a man can on land, has powerful suckers all along its arms and a horrible blender/grinder like mouth/stomach in the center.
    • There are other, more benevolent Starfish Aliens in the series. Most of them are just as intelligent as any human and integrate rather well with them, despite having extremely weird biologies (like a circle of talking polyps that run a customer service desk).
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Kilgour's specialty.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: The Emperor has ruled over multiple galaxies for hundreds if not thousands of years. As a result, he winds up with a lot of people who wind up blaming him for their problems, even if he didn't have anything to do with them, and some of those people manage to do a lot of damage.
    • The Privy Council have the Emperor assassinated. The Empire runs on AM2 and the Emperor is the only person who knows where to get it, and the Privy Council can't find it. Things don't go well for them when everyone starts running short of fuel.
    • The Emperor tries to kill Sten by blowing up the Manabi homeworld. This wipes out the Manabi, a pacifistic race of diplomats who everyone admired, and earns him a ton of hatred from people, because nobody believes that A, Sten did it, or B, that it was justified.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: The Big Bad in the final book keeps internally justifying his actions to himself. He's not crazy, he just enjoys the screams coming from the interrogation room because it means progress is being made. He doesn't think they're all out to get him—they are all out to get him, he's not crazy!
  • Terminally Dependent Society: AM 2 is the only known fuel source permitting efficient faster-than-light travel. The Eternal Emperor is literally the only being in the entire known universe who knows where it is found, and through his extensively booby-trapped automated freighter fleet he has an absolute lock on its supply. This is why he's ruled multiple galaxies for two thousand years.
  • Title Drop: Vortex gets a couple. The Emperor refers to his collapsing economy as a vortex at least once, and near the end of the book Sten and his friends are saved by a rogue tornado.
  • Throwing Your Sword Always Works: Even Sten didn't expect it to work. Apparently he's not Genre Savvy.
  • Tribal Face Paint: As part of her pre-mission preparation ritual, La Ciotat "paint[s] her face in the ancestral battle pattern of her house."
  • Uncoffee: Caff.
  • Unobtanium: See Applied Phlebotinum
  • Villainous Breakdown: We see this happen almost once a book. The Tahn, a powerful competing space government embroiled in a bitter (but losing) war with the Empire, suffers a nation-wide Villainous Breakdown after their most charismatic leader upon whom they pinned all their hopes is defeated. The result is complete anarchy.
  • Violent Glaswegian: Alex Kilgour, complete with impenetrable accent.
  • World of Badass: The whole series is about hardcore people outclassing other hardcore people, usually in combat, but sometimes in battles of wits as well.
  • You Killed My Father: In a subversion, Baron Thoresen actually tells Sten this; Sten knew the Baron, but had no reason to believe the Baron knew him.
    Sten: You know me?
    Thoresen: Yes. Intimately. I killed your family.